Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Blagojevic Defence Downplay Role in Atrocity

Lawyers for Srebrenica defendant seek to show that he was out of the command loop during the massacre.
By Ana Uzelac

The defence of the Bosnian Serb officer Vidoje Blagojevic this week continued to paint the Srebrenica massacre as a drama in which their client was given only a minor part.

The main actors, the defence seems to suggest, were Serb security and police forces, acting under the orders of people who wielded much more power than their client.

When the Bosnian Serb army overran the UN-protected area of Srebrenica in July 1995, Blagojevic, now 53, was the commander of the Bratunac brigade – a military unit comprising mainly local Serbs.

Some members of this brigade are suspected of participating in rounding up and later executing of around 7,000 Muslim men and boys, captured in the days following the takeover of the enclave.

Blagojevic was initially charged of personally “planning, instigating and ordering” these atrocities, as well as the expulsions of tens of thousands of Srebrenica civilians. He was also charged with command responsibility for the crimes his soldiers committed, as well as for complicity in genocide.

But the trial chamber dropped the charges of individual responsibility last month, arguing that the prosecution had failed to present evidence of Blagojevic’s personal involvement in planning or ordering the massacres.

The judges, however, kept the charges of command responsibility and of complicity to genocide.

The latter has become increasingly difficult to challenge, since the events in Srebrenica were recently officially classed as genocide by the tribunal’s appeals chamber considering the case of Radislav Krstic, former commander of the Drina corps, the most important army unit to participate in the massacre.

The prosecutors insist that Blagojevic “by virtue of his position as commander of the Bratunac brigade... was responsible for all prisoners captured, detained or killed within the Bratunac brigade zone of responsibility”.

But the defence is hoping to prove that, at the time, their client was not in control of the events that took place in his zone of responsibility. They have presented a series of witnesses in their efforts to prove that senior main staff officers and security people took charge of Srebrenica operations, leaving the Bratunac brigade commander out of the loop.

The first witness was Blagojevic’s assistant logistics commander Dragoslav Trisic, who was responsible for fuel, food, clothing and ammunition supplies.

The witness painted a picture of logistical chaos and confusion within a brigade that seemed to be constantly short of fuel and ammunition.

He told how on the day after Srebrenica fell, and the flood of refuges started gathering at the Dutch UN battalion compound in the suburb of Potocari, the Bratunac brigade helped the Drina corps find the buses and fuel needed to transport those people away from the enclave.

Other witnesses in this and other trials have described the horrific conditions in which Srebrenica refugees spent the day after the fall of the enclave – waiting without food or water in foetid temporary accommodation in the burning July heat.

In the meantime Trisic, together with a Drina corps officer, went looking for buses and fuel.

The necessary transport was located at the local Vihor bus company and impounded, while the fuel came from the soldiers of the Dutch UN battalion, who were in charge of protecting the population of Srebrenica.

“Dutchbat soldiers gave us one tanker of fuel,” Trisic said. During the war, this episode was reported in the international media and became one of the more embarrassing moments in the history of Dutch engagement in Srebrenica.

According to a report on Srebrenica recently published by the Dutch Institute of War Documentation, NIOD, the Dutchbat commander thought that the evolving humanitarian crisis in Potocari would best be dealt with by evacuating the refugees away from the squalor of their improvised camp. “The Dutchbat commander also told [attacking Bosnian Serb general Ratko] Mladic that he could arrange the transport,” the report reads.

“This fuel was received from the Dutchbat in order to transport the Muslims,” Trsic confirmed during the cross-examination by prosecutor Peter McCloskey.

The distribution of the fuel, he insisted, was done under the auspices of the Drina corps transportation officer and the witness insisted the buses were used only to transport the population of Srebrenica to the nearest area under Muslim control.

Trisic denied the prosecutor’s suggestions that the fuel records of the Bratunac brigade - allegedly describing how the fuel was used later to transport the Muslim men to their death – were destroyed. The destruction of the archive was described by the prosecution’s key witness, brigade chief of security Momir Nikolic.

Trisic also denied that the Bratunac brigade had ever provided transportation or fuel for the reburials of executed Srebrenica Muslims in autumn that year.

Another witness brought to stand this week talked about the overriding power that members of the Bosnian Serb army main staff wielded in Blagojevic’ zone of responsibility in the days surrounding the fall of Srebrenica.

Zlatan Celanovic, the Bratunac brigade’s officer in charge of moral, religious and legal issues, testified on how he had interviewed some of the imprisoned Muslims in the first days after the fall of the enclave.

The prisoners were brought to him either by chief of security Momir Nikolic, or by Bosnian Serb army main staff security head Colonel Ljubisa Beara. The latter has been indicted by the tribunal but is still at large.

After interrogating the prisoners, they were sent to the “collection centre” in the Vuk Karadzic school in Bratunac – which was soon to become the site of mass executions.

Celanovic told the court that on the evening of July 13, he was walking with Beara when they saw buses – some empty, some full of Muslim men – lining the surrounding streets. He told how he had asked why these men were still there, and why they were not sent to Muslim-controlled territories.

“Beara said there were organisational problems, there were too many men per bus and the new buses needed to arrive in order to reorganise the transport,” Celanovic said.

“Did you believe Colonel Beara when he told you that?” Blagojevic’s defence lawyer asked.

“Absolutely,” the witness replied.

He said that he saw members of the Bratunac brigade among those lining the streets, “I recognised them by their uniforms. They were very cheap, of very poor quality. Not like the good American-style ones that the other soldiers had.”

The third witness brought this week was a professor of Russian language from Bratunac, Jovan Ivic, who was mobilised at the beginning of the war and entrusted with guarding the Yellow Bridge checkpoint – the key point of entry to Srebrenica for all the humanitarian aid convoys.

Ivic added to the picture of a confused chain of command within his brigade by testifying that he never was under the real command of the brigade’s commander, but was instead directly responsible to his deputy and the security chief Momir Nikolic.

Many witnesses in this trial claimed that, although formally subordinate to Blagojevic, Nikolic was in fact part of a separate chain of command, linking him to the security officers in other units.

He described Nikolic as “vain” and “self-important”, and told the story of how in the days surrounding the fall of Srebrenica, Nikolic – who held a rank of captain – had asked him to address him as “major” in front of the Dutchbat soldiers. Nikolic, the witness said, also pretended he was in charge of the Bratunac brigade, calling the men “my soldiers”.

With the continuation of the trial, it increasingly looks like Nikolic may be the prosecution’s link to proving the extent of Blagojevic’s knowledge about Srebrenica murders and his resulting responsibility.

Nikolic was indicted along with Blagojevic and three other Bosnian Serb officers for the killings in Srebrenica, but soon pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his co-accused. In exchange, the prosecution agreed to drop the most serious charges against him and recommend a lighter sentence.

In his disconcerting witness statement, Nikolic provided meticulous details of how the operation to kill Srebrenica’s men was planned and organised.

Although he never claimed that Blagojevic made any of these decisions, Nikolic said he was personally keeping the defendant abreast of them. However, Nikolic alleges that he made most of these reports to the commanding officer in the absence of any other witnesses.

Nikolic's credibility was badly damaged last autumn, after it emerged that he had confessed to crimes he didn’t commit, presumably in the hope of getting the best possible plea agreement terms. His lie was quickly discovered and not included in the plea agreement - but this wasn’t made public until five months later.

It was Blagojevic’s defence lawyer Michael Karnavas who, during cross-examination, forced Nikolic to admit in open session that he had falsely claimed to have ordered the killing of 1,000 unarmed Muslims in Kravica and Sandici, and falsely identified himself as the man in a photograph presented to him by the prosecution.

Ana Uzelac is IWPR programme manager in The Hague.

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